LONDON: Italy were held to a disappointing 2-2 draw by Bulgaria as the rest of Europe’s leading sides made winning starts in their first matches in qualifying for the 2014 World Cup on Friday.
Showing little of the form that took the team to the European Championship final, the Italians were denied victory in their Group B opener when Georgi Milanov equalised for Bulgaria — ranked 89th in the world — in the 66th minute in Sofia.
That was the only big surprise of the opening round of qualifiers, although Portugal were hardly impressive in rallying to a 2-1 win over unheralded Luxembourg, with Cristiano Ronaldo scoring the equaliser for the visitors.
Germany would also have been expected to beat the Faeroe Islands by a bigger margin than 3-0, leaving England to record the most eye-catching result — 5-0 at Moldova in Group H.
The Netherlands ended a four-match losing run by beating Turkey 2-0 in what looked to be a tricky opening match for the Dutch in Group D, while France overcame Finland 1-0 thanks to a goal by Abou Diaby in coach Didier Deschamps’ first competitive match. The standout score came in Liechtenstein, where the hosts were thumped 8-1 by Bosnia.
In South American qualifying, Argentina beat Paraguay 3-1 to go to the top of the standings, while Colombia and Ecuador notched important victories to boost their chances of booking a place at Brazil 2014.
Argentina’s victory resulted from a combination of the Spanish league powers. Real Madrid pair Angel di Maria and Gonzalo Higuain scored first-half goals, followed by Barcelona star Lionel Messi. Jonathan Fabbro had temporarily brought the visitors level with a first-half penalty.
Colombia moved within a point of Uruguay with a convincing 4-0 win. Ecuador struggled past lowly Bolivia 1-0, with the sole goal coming in the 74th minute when substitute Felipe Caicedo converted a penalty. Peru won 2-1 at home against Venezuela to move out of last place, while dropping Venezuela out of the top five.
In CONCACAF region World Cup qualifiers, the surprise result was Jamaica’s 2-1 home win over the United States. Mexico won 2-0 away at Costa Rica, while Canada beat visiting Panama 1-0.
In international friendlies, Brazil laboured to a 1-0 home win over South Africa, while Spain flexed muscles with a 5-0 win over Saudi Arabia.